Thursday, August 2, 2007

Don't Toss That Coin inThe Well: Verdigris Deep

Everyone--well, everyone who's ever heard or read any fantasy or folklore, or who has any common sense, for that matter--knows how dangerous it is to make a wish; how the wish, if granted by a god or elf or genie or pixie, is almost always distorted, twisted, turned against the wisher.

But what of the wish-granters?

That's the question Frances Hardinge asks in Verdigris Deep, and she goes deep with it. Hardinge's first novel, Fly By Night, gathered many genres--alternate history, adventure, coming of age, political intrigue--into its capacious (maybe too capacious) embrace, but managed to avoid the one she delves into here: creepy, creepy horror. Like Alan Garner's The Owl Service, with which it's sure to be compared many times, Verdigris Deep pits a trio of troubled adolescents against the raw, living forces of an ancient mythology, forcing them to confront the deepest and most secret recesses of the human heart.

How'd that be for jacket-flap copy? But it's all true. Horror is not so much my thing, and if Fly by Night hadn't been one of my very favorite books read last year (it wasn't everyone's, I know, but it was mine) I probably wouldn't have gone near this one. But there it was, sitting
on the bookstore table, and my hand just went for it. Almost without my control. Ooo, spooky, and so much like this book. I couldn't even bring myself to read it at night. When our hero, Ryan, got those weird itchy bumps on his hands and they turned into--oh, I can't tell you what they turned into but believe me it will give you the willies--and then the well witch started showing up on posters in tunnels, streaming water from her eyes, and then the creepy Miss Gossamer showed her true colors, well it's a good thing there was bright daylight outside or I would have lost even more sleep than I did last week.

For plot, I'll tell you what the back-cover copy told me: three kids steal some coins from a well for bus fare, and are then forced to serve the god ("well witch" is what the back cover says, but really she's a god, that's clear) responsible for granting the wishes each coin represents. It's pitched creepy, and it reads creepy. But there's more here. This book is more compact and less picaresque than Fly By Night; page by page I'm not sure that I enjoyed it more, because it's not my favorite genre, but I think it might be a stronger book. Hardinge doesn't mess around this time having fun with made-up worlds, just goes straight for the heart with a pick-axe. Man, she's good.

I can't decide yet if there's too much troubled-family problem-novel psychological stuff in the book or not. You get right away that Ryan's parents are part of his issue: his mom writes "unauthorized biographies" that get her stalked by her subjects, and does bad-fictional-parent stuff like making Ryan wear his contact lenses instead of the glasses he prefers when reporters come to the house to interview her; she and Ryan's dad alternate between bickering and icy silence, which drives Ryan batty. And Ryan's friends' parents wouldn't win any functional-family awards either: Josh is a charismatic budding juvenile delinquent whose folks punish him for his frequent misbehavior by banishing him from the house; and Chelle is all but ignored by her family, which might be one reason she keeps up a constant torrent of chat, in hopes of catching someone's attention even for a moment.

But the family psychology is part of Hardinge's point, not tacked on but integral. As our three protagonists blunder through the summer, desperately trying to grant wishes, they gradually realize what the Well Spirit cannot: not only can wishes turn against those who make them, but each wish has an unspoken component, born of the wisher's deepest unacknowledged yearnings, and granting these can be even more disastrous than making the intended wish come true.

Ryan lays out the heart of the novel when he tries to explain to Chelle that wishes are "sort of like conkers [chestnuts]...There's an outer bit which is what the wish seems to be, but there's another bit inside which is kind of the real wish...And I don't think when most people wish, they really know what they're wishing. It's like they only see the green spiky outer bit." The ancient Well Spirit, he goes on, "doesn't really get the green spiky bits of their wishes...But the shiny nut bit of wishes, she gets that, kind of. She can help with that. Because those are the great big, painful, simple wishes, you see. Life. Death. Love. Revenge. She gets that."

Hardinge, it's clear, gets that too. Not to give too much away, but some of these wishes--past and present--are the hard, real, unpretty deal, and I wouldn't recommend this book to readers much younger than ten, or maybe eleven, unless I knew them (and their parents) quite well. Or unless they'd already read The Owl Service or Margaret Mahy's The Changeover and come out the other side unscathed.

I can't wrap this up without mentioning Hardinge's way with language, which outshone all the plot baubles in Fly By Night and which illuminates the murky relationships here: When Ryan's mum prepares him for a visiting reporter, "Ryan could feel his mother's fingers pulling and poking at him as they had the orchid. He sometimes wondered whether she thought that if she tugged at him for long enough she would end up with something more interesting." Chelle offhandedly complains about what it's like "when somebody's watching you and you can feel it like dead leaves down the back of your jumper..."Of Magwhite, the town where the fateful well is located: "Nobody could quite remember which, but something had happened to give the name 'Magwhite' ugly edges. If Magwhite was mentioned, parents' faces stiffened as if they had picked up a bad smell."

There are also some nice funny bits, and several adults have their own surprises in store; it's always a relief to see kids' books where the grownups turn out to be flawed human beings rather than caricatures.

All in all: if you liked Fly By Night, try this one. If you didn't like Fly By Night, try this one too, as it is utterly different in its particulars. Either way, watch for more by Frances Hardinge; her first two books, put together, are a pretty powerhouse combination, and I wish (uh-oh) I could read whatever else she's got in store.

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